Sunday, October 31, 2010

Deficit metaphors: the state took a bullet

What with the government trying to flog us the old ‘government budget as household finances’ metaphor, Liam wondered if anyone had any others.

I suggested we could think of the deficit as a metaphor: a powerful use of it can be stimulating and help to move things along, but if you stretch it to breaking point you’ll lose credibility and have to spend even longer getting back to where you started.

More seriously (and more partisan), here’s one that occurred to me this morning:

Unlike the Tories’ laissez-faire attitude, during this recession Labour decided the government should take a bullet to protect the economy. To prevent the worst of the harm to businesses and households, we let government borrowing take the strain.

Letting the deficit rise was the right thing to do. In normal times, this much borrowing would be a terrible idea, but a global financial crisis is not normal times. And it worked: unemployment and repossessions have not been nearly as bad as in previous recessions. The Tories, on the other hand, wanted us to gut the public sector at the same time as the private sector was taking hits, and they opposed the VAT cut that helped people struggling to make ends meet.

So the government took a bullet, and now we have to repair the harm to the public finances. There are two ways we can cope with this bullet-wound: cut off the injured limb and hobble on as best we can, or stop the bleeding and then take time to heal and grow back to strength. The first option is quick but brutal, causing irreparable damage. The second is less dramatic, but it allows us a fuller recovery.

Does this have potential? Maybe not – it’s a bit all-or-nothing – but I’ve been blogging so little lately I figured I owed you something.

I’ve also got a half-formed idea about the dangers of slamming on the brakes when your car’s skidding, even though it seems the instinctive thing to do – instead, you have to slow gradually and turn the wheel back steadily. Anyone’s welcome to develop that one, but I’m too clueless a driver to do it myself.

(The standard political metaphor for deficits is the ‘black hole’, the most destructive thing in the universe, swallowing anything that comes near it and becoming all the more powerful in the process. If it hadn’t been cheapened by overuse to describe any old gap in the public finances, then it would have been perfect for those warning of a catastrophic debt spiral.)


CS Clark said...

Taking a bullet (which it is, an Americanism?) might not be as universal a metaphor as the household budget one. And the Tories would rightly complain that it misrepresents their cuts as all happening at once, and that Labour's plan is to wait until the patient is feeling a little better (all the while feeding them caviar paid for by the taxpayer!) and then cut their leg off.

But I think there's certainly something in the medical area. That the Tory attitude towards the recession was 'Leave it alone, it'll get better by itself.' Which is probably fine if you have a mild cold, but a bit dangerous if you've broken your leg. And that now we are only just beginning to recover, it's the Tories who want to clear the patient out, remove all the bandages, send them back to work without regard for whether or not they are healed - although you would think they would be more worried since they believed the patient was dead. As a gamble it might pay off, but if the patient slips again because they aren't strong enough you could be looking at twelve more weeks in traction.

Hmm. Got away from me a bit there. Also, medical metaphors do allow anyone to chastise unions by telling them it won't get better if you picket.

PS - does defining the Tory attitude as laissez-faire let them off the hook for the long periods when they were supporting all the same government spending that they suddenly realised was profligate? Or for the extreme hopefulness involved in their job creation plans which goes beyond a simple philosophy of let it be?

Liam Murray said...

Frozen pipes? No water or heating, system ground to a halt - turn a hairdryer or blowtorch on offending area might get things going but a huge risk of a more serious & costly problem than no heating...?

I think almost everything sounds lame in comparison to the credit card one because that's barely a metaphor at all - it's directly about borrowing to buy things you don't yet have the cash for, it's about paying interest on that borrowing and it's about the 'spiralling out of control' trope. The reason it resonates so well is people don't have to pause and ask "so, the bullet is the crash yes..?" or "but if the car skids isn't the driver to blame?" etc. It makes other attempts to explain the deficit metaphorically sound like sophistry (sometimes they are, others not).

I'm reminded of a comedy routine Ben Elton did in the 80's to parody the concept of mutally assured destruction - London Underground put bombs on each carriage because that would 'deter' real bombers from bringing any themselves. I lost count of how often lefty pals trotted that out at me as 'proof' that MAD was, well, mad and it's an undeniably powerful was of making that particular point. Still an opinion I suppose but I think history now shows it to have been more effective than that mockery suggests.